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3: Further Charges against Unfaithful Israel (Hosea 11:1-11)

6. Divine and Prophetic Compassion for Israel (11:1-11)

Translation

11:1 When Israel was a young man, I loved him like a son,

and I summoned my son out of Egypt.

2 But the more I summoned them,

the farther they departed from me.

They sacrificed to the Baal idols

and burned incense to images.

3 Yet it was I who led Ephraim,

I took them by the arm;

but they did not acknowledge

that I had healed them.

4 I led them with leather cords,

with leather ropes;

I lifted the yoke from their neck,

and gently fed them.

5 They will return to Egypt!

Assyria will rule over them

because they refuse to repent!

6 A sword will flash in their cities,

it will destroy the bars of their city gates,

and will devour them in their fortresses.

7 My people are obsessed with turning away from me;

they call to Baal, but he will never exalt them!

8 How can I give you up, O Ephraim?

How can I surrender you, O Israel?

How can I treat you like Admah?

How can I make you like Zeboiim?

I have had a change of heart!

All my tender compassions are aroused!

9 I cannot carry out my fierce anger!

I cannot totally destroy Ephraim!

Because I am God, and not man – the Holy One among you –

I will not come in wrath!

10 He will roar like a lion,

and they will follow the Lord;

when he roars,

his children will come trembling from the west.

11 They will return in fear and trembling

like birds from Egypt,

like doves from Assyria,

and I will settle them in their homes,” declares the Lord.

Exegesis and Exposition

Chapter 11 contains the most poignant yet touching words in all of Hosea. It features a sharp contrast between God’s tender reminiscences of His early relationship with Israel and yet His sorrow at their rejection of Him for Baal despite all that He had done for them (vv. 1-4). His people had taken for granted His love and care for them, and the Lord was concerned for their constant lack of fidelity, which now necessitated their coming judgment (vv. 5-7).

In a second display of His compassion the Lord reveals that His abiding love for Israel would mean that His judgment could not and would not spell the end for His people (vv. 8-9). For in a future day Israel would respond to His call and they would return to their homes and His blessings (vv. 10-11).

The first portion deals with Israel’s historic past at a time when God’s people were in bondage in Egypt. It was then that God called His people out of Egypt, redeemed them with a mighty show of force, and led them on their journey toward the Promised Land (v. 1). Hosea’s citation of the Lord’s words is in harmony with the familiar exodus motif that runs throughout the Scriptures (e.g., Exod. 3:8; 12:37-13:19; hets who included it both in warnings to the people for covenant disobedience (e.g., Jer. 2:5-9; 7:21-29; 11:14-17) and in promises of restoration through repentance and surrender to God’s will (e.g., Isa. 42:5-7; 61:1-4; Jer. 16:14-15; Ezek. 20:32-38).1 The exodus motif reaches its climax in the prophesied New Covenant (Jer. 23:7-8; 31:31-37; 32:40-41; Ezek. 37:21-28) and finds fulfillment on the basis of the finished redemptive work of Christ (Matt. 26:27-29; 2 Cor. 3:6; Heb. 8).

In the Lord’s adaptation of the exodus motif He portrays Himself as a parent to His child Israel. This metaphor of God as a father to son Israel is common enough in the Old Testament (e.g., Exod. 4:22; Deut. 14:1-2; Isa. 1:2; Jer. 3:19; 4:22), but here it is wedded to the theme of deliverance. In a very real sense Israel’s deliverance from the power of the Egyptians was an act of redemption both physically and spiritually. As Vos declared long ago, “The exodus from Egypt is the Old Testament redemption . It is based on the inner coherence of O.T. and N.T. religion itself. These two, however different their forms of expression, are yet one in principle.”2

The portrayal of Israel’s “childhood” continues by shifting the scene to the time of the wilderness wanderings (v. 2). The NET (cf. NIV, NJB, NLT, NRSV) follows the LXX and Syriac versions in reflecting something of God’s sorrow of heart during that time. Thus no matter how often the Lord called to His people, the more they left Him and went away. They even went so far as to embrace Baal and to burn incense to images. Both were in clear violation of the standards in God’s law (cf. Exod. 20:3-4; Deut. 5:7-8).

The MT (cf. Vulgate), however, reads, “The more) they called to them, the more/so they went (away) from them” (cf. HCSB, KJV, NKJV, NASB). If the MT is to be followed, the question becomes who was calling and to whom? Was it God’s prophets who were calling the Israelites (McComiskey), or was it the Egyptians (Garrett), or were the Israelites calling for the Egyptians (Sweeney)?

Sweeney’s proposal has the advantage of scriptural precedent in Israel’s repeated complaints against the leadership in the days of the exodus and during the wilderness wanderings. As Sweeney observes, “Insofar as the passage later highlights the issue of the return to Egypt in verse 5, it seems likely that the passage refers to Israel’s continuous expression of the desire to return to Egypt and its seeking of foreign gods while in the wilderness.”3

Yet this proposal faces the difficulty of understanding to whom the following “so they went away from them” refers. Perhaps Sweeney’s suggestion may be salvaged by viewing the Hebrew ke„n as occurring in a common comparative construction: “as … so” (or “the more … the more”).4 Thus “As (or the more) they (i.e., the Israelites) called unto them (i.e., the Egyptians), so (the more) they went away from them.” This interpretation suggests that even while the Israelites were journeying and going farther away from the Egyptians, rather than looking forward with eager anticipation to where Yahweh was leading them, they cried out for the former days in Egypt. “A number of texts expand the historical perspective of the exodus account by recording the redeemed people’s whining ingratitude … (cf. Exod. 14:11; 15:14; 16:3; 17:2, 3; 32:1; Num. 11:1, 18-20; 14:2-4; 20:5; 21:5; Deut. 1:2-6).”5 The capstone to Israel’s ingratitude and infidelity came in their succumbing to the enticements associated with Baalism (cf. Hos. 9:10). It was a fascination that continued to Hosea’s day and would eventually contribute to Israel’s demise.

The image of Yahweh as Israel’s father continues in verse 3. Here the Lord points out the irony in Israel’s attraction to Baal. It was not this so-called god who cared for Israel or guided them on their journey in the wilderness. Rather, it was Yahweh—the same One who taught His people how to walk, that is, gave them spiritual liberty and the opportunity to grow in faith. It was Yahweh who healed their wounds and the sickness of Egyptian bondage.6 It was He who went before them in the wilderness on their journey toward the Promised Land (cf. Hos. 6:1; 7:1).

God declares that His teaching process of His people was “with the cords of a man, with the ropes of love” (v. 4, MT).7 The description here is in harmony with the figurative language built upon the agrarian imagery of Hosea 10:11-13 and also provides a literary hook between the two chapters. Nevertheless, the figure that still lurks in the background is that of the father and his child. Thus Yahweh’s “harnessing” of His young ox (child Israel) was like that of any concerned human father. His teaching and sovereign guidance was one of love, not the yoke of an animal designed for heavy work. Indeed, Israel’s former life in Egypt—for which they so frequently cried out in the wilderness—was one that could be characterized as being “yoked.” But Yahweh had lifted that oppressive yoke from Israel’s neck, and gently fed and lovingly cared for them with cords like that of a hackamore.

To be sure, the figurative language contains a shift in metaphors (if not a mixed metaphor), but the oracles in Hosea frequently move quickly from one figure to another (e.g., Hos. 9:10-10:1). Stuart points out, “In light of the many shifts of person, number and gender that are noted throughout the book in its many and varied metaphorical descriptions of Israel (and Yahweh), the most likely interpretation is that the entire verse represents a metaphorical shift, in which Yahweh’s love for Israel is paralleled now to concern for a dependent beast rather than a child.”8 It may be more accurate to say that both metaphorical uses are held in tension. The point here is that just as any good father or animal owner would act kindly toward his child or animal, so the Lord has dealt tenderly—even affectionately—with Israel.

Having described His deliverance, and loving care and guidance for Israel (vv. 1, 3-4), the Lord now declares that judgment now must come to His people (vv. 5-6). This is because of their longstanding and abiding sinfulness (vv. 2, 7). God’s sentence for the near future remains the same as that delivered previously: in accordance with the covenantal stipulations Israel will return to Egypt (cf. 7:16; 8:13; 9:3-6). By Egypt is meant primarily Israel’s fall to the Assyrian forces and deportation to their lands.9 Even though some of Israel’s exiles might escape to Egypt, theirs would not be a pleasant experience there.

Israel has put its trust in fortresses (v. 6; cf. 8:13-14; 10:14) and other gods (i.e., especially Baal, v. 7; cf. 9:10; 10:1), but none of these would be able to save them when the invader came. In another listing of threes Israel’s cities are depicted as witnessing the flashing, cutting swords of the enemy, the fall of the city gates and their supposedly strong fortresses turned into graveyards. For the dead shall lie everywhere within their precincts (v. 6). It was all so needless. If only they had trusted Yahweh who alone could protect them rather than their supposedly impregnable fortresses. Moreover, only the Lord could really promote the welfare, which no foreign power or supposed god could provide. But to the contrary, they called to a “higher power” which could do neither (v. 7).

Through a series of rhetorical questions the Lord reveals a glimpse into His heart’s dilemma (vv. 8-9; cf. 6:4). Although His justice demanded Israel’s punishment and that would surely come (vv. 5-6), yet He could never bring Himself to annihilate His people as in the case of those early hopelessly rebellious people of the cities of the plain (v. 8; cf. Gen. 14:2 with Gen. 19:23-28; Deut. 29:23; Isa. 13:19; Amos 4:10). His deep compassion for His people meant that although He must administer justice in the form of Israel’s defeat and exile (cf. Hos. 6:11; 7:12-16; 9:3, 16-17; 10:6-10), nevertheless He would not destroy them completely. His sentence against His people was thus a matter of the necessary carrying out of the requirements against a wayward child (cf. Deut. 19-23) and not a matter of human vengeance. Indeed, Yahweh is a holy God—One who desires to see that holiness resident and active in His people (v. 9).

Hosea expands on the Lord’s pronouncements by revealing God’s future plans for Israel. These included the restoration of a then repentant people who will long for renewed fellowship with the Lord (cf. 6:1-3). In a striking simile Hosea returns to the imagery of the lion (v. 10). Unlike the Lord’s earlier employment of the figure of a voracious lion, which would bring judgment in the form of the destruction of Israel (cf. 5:14-15), this time the Lord is portrayed as a compassionate and concerned parent lion calling for its young to follow him. And at that time Israel will choose to respond to the Lord. There will be a new exodus of the people from all of the lands of their exile (v. 11). Then God’s people will return to their homeland and settle down. It will be even as Garrett remarks: “Hosea’s point here is that there is to be a new exodus in which God will again play the part of the lion and deliver his people from their enemies and into a new Promised Land.”10 This point is reinforced in yet another simile. God’s people will hurry homeward like birds flying to the nest. No longer acting like silly doves reaching out first to one nation and then another for acceptance and protection (cf. 7:11), God’s people in that day will respond in faith to God’s calling, will desire His will, and return to the place of their blessing.

All of this was prefigured in the relation between Hosea and Gomer (2:14-23). As Hosea was instructed to seek after Gomer in love and tenderness (2:14), so the Lord will call for His people to come back to Him. As that response symbolized Israel’s putting away of Baal and the rites associated with him (2:16-17), so Israel’s fascination with false gods and idolatry will be over. As Gomer/Israel would respond in renewed fidelity to her husband (Hosea/Yahweh; 2:19-20), so the future Israelites will come in reverential trust and love to the Lord. As Gomer/Israel would experience renewed blessings based upon fidelity and a lasting relationship with Hosea/Yahweh, so God’s people will experience the long missing covenant blessings in the Promised Land. As Stuart observes, “The faithful will ‘fly’ back not merely to the land as sojourners or the like, but to their ‘homes,’ an indication of true resettling in possession of original inheritances. Throughout Israel’s history, residence in the land was a central blessing of their covenant with Yahweh (cf. 2:18[16], 20[18]). Now would be fulfilled the promise of 2:25[23].”11

Certainly Israel’s hope for the near future lay with the return from exile in lands such as Assyria and Egypt (cf. Ezra 2). Yet the prophets also often speak of a distant future when God’s people will come and find the Promised Land as an everlasting place of residence and blessing (see e.g., Isa. 40:1-11; 60:1-22; 65:17-25; Jer. 23:5-8; 32:36-44; 33:15-16; Zeph. 3:14-20; etc.).12 Accordingly, Hosea’s seemingly near future perspective may well veil a further, more final exodus. Thus Wood suggests, “Egypt and Assyria typify the many nations from which God’s people will return in the future day. Then he will settle them ‘in their homes’—an assurance of their permanent residence in their land (cf. 2:19).”13

Additional Notes

11:1 Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1 is best viewed analogically. The evangelist sees in Hosea’s text an analogy between Yahweh’s words calling His people out of Egypt and the return of Jesus’ parents to Nazareth with their son: “In this way what was spoken by the LORD through the prophet was fulfilled: ‘I called my Son out of Egypt’” (Matt. 2:15, NET). Thus just as Israel came out of Egypt, so also did Jesus and His parents. Although one need not consider the Matthew passage (Matt. 2:13-23) as a fulfillment of Hosea 11:1, because of the New Testament use of Hosea’s words, the Old Testament passage is thereby enriched (made fuller).14

11:1 The NET translation correctly understands that the Hebrew noun naàar envisions more than infancy (cf. 1 Sam. 4:21; 5:14).15 The noun may refer to a youth anywhere from infancy to early adulthood.

11:2 Another suggestion favoring the MT comes from Hubbard, and from Andersen and Freedman who propose that it is the women of Moab who are calling to the Israelites.16

11:3 The Lord’s remarks could almost be construed as satire: despite the fact that the Israelites kept going farther and farther away from Egypt, they kept whining and crying for the “good old days” in Egypt.

11:3 The Hebrew tirgaltî is generally understood to be a rare tiphil form of a denominative verb from the noun regel (“foot”). The unusual qa„h£a„m is perhaps to be taken as a rare infinitive from the verb la„qah£ (“to take”), hence to be understood as “taking them.” The shift from the plural “them” to “his own” (MT) may emphasize God’s instructions for not only corporate Israel but individual Israelites.

11:4 The problem of the mixing of metaphors has led some translators (e.g., NJB, NRSV) and commentators (e.g., Wolff) to read the Hebrew word áo„l (“yoke”) as áu„l (“infant’; cf. BHS cj.). The NRSV reads “I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” Despite the advantage of maintaining a consistent figure throughout the first four verses (although under this understanding portraying God as a nursing mother), the suggestion lacks proper textual support and fails to deal adequately with the wider context.

11:5 Many translations render the Hebrew particle lo„á Israel will not” (cf. KJV, NKJV, ESV, HCSB). The NIV takes verse 5 to be a rhetorical question (were they not?). It seems best to view lo„á as an emphatic particle indicating Israel’s certain fate: “it will surely” (cf. NRSV, “they shall return”).

11:6 It is simplest to understand the enigmatic bad as gate bolt (Keil), hence a metonymy for the city gates (cf. NET, NIV, NASB, ESV, NLT).17

11:7 The force of the Hebrew áel àal is admittedly difficult and has therefore been understood variously. Garrett proposes that the phrase should be read as a divine name áe„l àal, hence “and they call him áe„l àal [God on high].”18 As it did in Hosea 7:16, the NIV renders the problematic àal as “the Most High,” thus taking it to be a reference to the Lord and then translating it (possibly as another pseudo-sorites): “Even if they call to the Most High, He will be no means exalt them.” The NET follows the lead of the BHS in assuming that àal is a play on the name Baal (see text note). Stuart understands the reference to Yahweh differently, taking the statement in a positive way as a transition to verses 8-11 and translates, “Then my people will tire of turning away from me; and on the Most High they will call; all together they will surely exalt him.”19 Andersen and Freedman also take the Hebrew to refer to Yahweh, understanding it to be a biform of áe„l àelyo‚n and assume that the Hebrew negative of the following clause is a double duty particle. Thus they translate, “They did not call on him as the Supreme God, he did not exalt him as the Only One.”20 Possible understandings of the phrase are indeed manifold. Thus Achtemeier proposes that the Hebrew àal be read as àl (“yoke”; cf. Vulgate) hence, “and to the yoke (that is, of Assyria) they shall be appointed; none will life them up.”21 Sweeney assumes the novel position that the reference is to the king of Assyria.22

11:8-9 Israel is portrayed metaphorically as a city here—a sinful one at that. Yet unlike those earlier totally wicked cities of the plain, God will not destroy His people completely or forever. The threefold use of the negative particle lo„á (“not”) underscores the force of God’s declaration.

11:9 The mention of God as the Holy One is in accordance with His special relation to Israel as His covenant people. Isaiah speaks of the Lord as “the Holy One of Israel” more than a score of times.

11:10-11 Although the Lord could be referring to Himself via the third person verb here, it is probably more active to follow Sweeney in holding that “the prophet takes up the parental imagery of YHWH’s reluctance to punish Israel in Hos 11:1-9 by presenting a metaphorical image of Israel following YHWH much as lion cubs follow a roaring lion or birds return to their nests.”23


1 For discussions of the exodus motif, see D. Daube, The Exodus Pattern in the Bible (London: Faber and Faber, 1963); David Pao, Acts and The Isaianic New Exodus (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000); Patterson, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, 241-245; Richard D. Patterson, “The Psalm of Habakkuk,” Grace Theological Journal 8 (1987): 163-194; Richard D. Patterson and Michael Travers, “Contours of the Exodus Motif in Jesus’ Earthly Ministry,” WTJ 66 (2004): 25-47; Rikki Watts, Consolation or Confrontation? Isaiah 40-55 and the Delay of the New Exodus,” Tyndale Bulletin 41 (1990): 31-39; Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997); William Webb, Returning Home: New Covenant and Second Exodus as the Context for 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 JSOTsup 85 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993).

2 Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954), 124. Vos goes on to point out that the exodus redemption is presented as a deliverance from both an objective realm of sin and evil and also from spiritual degradation and sin. It was a redemption that could and was accomplished by the sovereign grace and power of the Lord alone.

3 Sweeney, Twelve Prophets, 1:113.

4 For other examples of the deletion of the particle (“as”) in the protasis, see Judges. 5:15; Isaiah 55:9. For Hosea’s use of the fully formed construction, see Hosea 4:7.

5 Patterson and Travers, “Contours,” 30.

6 Alternatively, the reference here could be to the Lord’s curing of the bitter water at Marah (Exod. 15:22-26).

7 For an alternate translation, see the NET and its textual notes.

8 Stuart, Hosea-Jonah, 179.

9 See the note on 7:16.

10 Garrett, Hosea, Joel, 229.

11 Stuart, Hosea-Jonah, 183.

12 In many prophetic texts God’s near and distant future appear to blend together as a single hope (e.g., Isa. 52:4-13; 61:1-3; Jer. 16:14-15), which nonetheless does not negate a two-stage fulfillment. Many prophecies appear to find a specific fulfillment yet without exhausting fully the details in the prophecy. R. T. France, Jesus and the Old Testament (London: Tyndale House, 1971), 160-163 calls such cases “fulfillment without consummation.”

13 Wood, “Hosea,” 7:214.

14 For possible messianic implications in Matthew’s handling of Hosea’s reference the Exodus event, see John H. Sailhamer, “Hosea 11:1 and Matthew 2:15,” WTJ  63 (2001): 87-96; Dan McCartner and Peter Enns, “Matthew and Hosea: A Response to John Sailhamer,” WTJ 63 (2001): 97-105.

15 See my note Patterson and Austel, “Kings,” 4:186.

16 Hubbard, Hosea, 187; Andersen and Freedman, Hosea, 578.

17 Keil, Minor Prophets, 1:140.

18 Garrett, Hosea, Joel, 226. So understood it would entail Israel’s “worshiping God under the name of  áe„l àal but that Yahweh rejected that title and considered it to be the name of another god (i.e., Baal). That is the Israelites depended upon an apostate theology in which the assimilated the worship of Yahweh to the Canaanite cults under the ambiguous title ‘God on High.’”

19 Stuart, Hosea-Jonah, 181.

20 Andersen and Freedman, Hosea, 574, 586-587. For the use of double duty negative particles, see M. Dahood, Psalms 101-150 AB (Garden City: Doubleday, 1970), 438.

21 Achtemeier, Minor Prophets, 1:94.

22 Sweeney, Twelve Prophets, 1:115.

23 Sweeney, Twelve Prophets, 1:116. The figure of a roaring lion is used elsewhere to portray God’s judgment against the ungodly (e.g., Jer. 25:30; Joel 3:16; Amos 1:2).